I spoke to Rick Reilly Thursday about ESPN's "Mt. Rushmore of Sports" feature, as well as many other topics, such as his charitable "Nothing but Nets" campaign, his transition from SI to ESPN, the differences between print and TV and, oh, almost forgot . . . blogs.
“I don’t really go on the blogs, because they don’t really like anybody," he said. "Jesus could do a column and they’d be like, ‘What the hell is with the hair?’ It’ll always be something.
"Charles Barkley told me a long time ago always half the people are going to hate you and half the people are going to love you. If you suddenly change who you are, the other half will hate you. I don’t really care what people holding down couch springs do or say."
Yikes! Click below for much more, including his take on the infamous Florida-LSU press-box smooching controversy of 2007.
And Josh Levin's Slate column about Reilly's alleged dental obsession.
And his relationship with Bill Simmons.
Here are highlights of my talk with Mr. Reilly, in chronological order:
On Alex Rodriguez (sorry, but no New York-based writer is permitted to do an article or blog post without mentioning the Yankees' third baseman; it's the law):
“You know it’s just going to get worse. You’ve been trying to dance around the truth, and it’s just going to get worse. It’s exactly like your mom told you: You might as well tell me everything now, because I’m going to find out sooner or later."
On whether he buys the criticism that he does not come off as well on TV as in print:
"I don’t know. How am I doing? It’s so new to me. I realize I have a face made for print and I know my voice is a little nasally, but I just wanted to try something new. I’ve been doing the same thing for 23 years.
"I wanted to see if my writing could work on TV, go to a younger audience with the Internet, see if I could do this show, ‘Homecoming,’ something where you’re actually talking to an athlete for more than a 30-second sound bite, where you get an hour to discuss a guy's life and get into it.
"I know I’m not Bob Costas, but I think if you can get past the big nose and nasally voice, I think I’m trying to bring interesting sentences, good writing, clear and maybe unusual opinions to television.’’
"I love writing and I know that’s what I am. I’ve been paid to be a writer since I was 20. Also, you look around and all your writer friends are losing their jobs. Wouldn’t you say ‘SportsCenter’ has got to be one of the great inventions in the history of sports journalism? I mean, it’s a juggernaut. Everybody watches it. It’s on in every bar, every barbershop. That’s the way to really get heard. So I’m trying to see if I can get heard.
"But what I find out so far is when you write a great column, people are like, ‘Oh, I emailed it to my 100 best friends,’ or ‘I was able to talk to my dad finally,’ or ‘I buried the hatchet with my son,’ or ‘I realized I had a problem with alcohol.’ You really move people.
"When I write stuff on TV, it’s, ‘Hey, saw you on TV!’ ‘What was that shirt?’ ‘Why were you wearing those shoes?’ People can’t get past the odd looking person on TV to hear what you’re saying yet. It’s almost like they’re amazed that the electronics at their house worked: ‘Look, I saw you on TV!’ What about what I said about my father? ‘Uh, no, I just saw that that was a weird nose.’"
On criticism of him, particularly in the blogs:
"I don’t really go on the blogs, because they don’t really like anybody. Jesus could do a column and they’d be like, ‘What the hell is with the hair?’ It’ll always be something. Charles Barkley told me a long time ago always half the people are going to hate you and half the people are going to love you. If you suddenly change who you are, the other half will hate you. I don’t really care what people holding down couch springs do or say."
On whether resentment over his salary might fuel some of the criticism of him:
"I didn’t put out the salary. I certainly didn’t want it out there and I think a lot of times people are just like, ‘Oh, screw him.’ I hear that with athletes all the time. ‘Screw them, they’re making so much money.’ Well, that’s what the owners are paying. The free market is allowing that. You’re going to hate the guy because someone is paying him?"
There is a perception that there is tension between your and your fellow ESPN columnist, Bill Simmons; what is your relationship with him like?
"Where do they get this stuff? I get along with him. I think he’s funny. I think he’s a great turner of phrases. I’ve tried to learn from him how he builds an audience on the Internet. He definitely has that new blogger style where you write in stream of consciousness style, a lot of parentheses, a lot of tangents, and that’s not the way I was raised.
"My whole thing was hey, you’ve got 800 words, choose them wisely. Pick the exact word you want and don’t waste a word and kill your darlings even if you love them, that it’s got to fit. He comes from a whole different era where it doesn’t have to fit. He can go on for 7,000 words if he wants. My kids read him.
"I don’t know how that whole thing started. Every time I see him he’s great."
On Levin's dental column:
"I’ve been doing this for 30 years and my No. 1 goal in writing is to never write a sentence you’ve already read . . . So I sit there for an hour sometimes trying to find another way of saying 'he beat the crap out of him.'
"So if I sit there for an hour and come up with, ‘he rearranged his molars,’ or ‘he made his teeth look like antlers,’ or whatever I finally come up with, then, yeah, 30 years writing sentences that I hope jump off the page and squirt apple juice in your ear, I use all kinds of different body parts.
"I don’t know if the guy wants me to just write sentences that everybody’s already read and therefore stay away from dental references. I use spleen, thorax, clavicle, over 30 years I’m like 'That’s all you got? That’s all I’ve done?'
"I thought it would be a thousand references! I told the guy he should stick it in his cavity. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be tongue in cheek or he really thought it was a problem. He never said, 'The guy repeats himself.' What he said was, 'Gosh, the guy uses a lot of dental references.' What he didn’t say was, 'He uses the same one over and over.'"
On his "Nothing But Nets" campaign, which raises money to buy nets to protect Africans from malaria:
"It’s so great. I think we’re up to $23 million, which is not bad for 800 words that started it all out. These people at the United Nations Foundation have been terrific. It’s just an amazing story in that the average donation is $60.
"We get it all the time, Cub Scout money, bar mitzvah money, a Kool-Aid stand . . . It’s the all-time no-brainer in giving. You don’t have to topple a government. All the money goes straight to the nets; Ted Turner’s donation to the United Nations Foundation takes care of that.
"Even sports fans can figure this out. Ten dollars puts a net over a couple of kids who are not going to die of malaria. They sleep under the net from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. when the mosquitoes are out. That’s about 2.3 million nets, and it just keeps growing . . . People are so generous. It’s slowed a little in the recession but it’s still going strong.
"I think we helped people realize, you mean we can wipe out malaria with these nets, and it’s not going to wipe out vegetation and no one has to take a pill and no trucks are going to get hi-jacked? No one can use the nets for anything but this."
On how he divides his time among his various ESPN duties:
"The number one thing for me by far is the column. That’s what I spend all of my time pulling my hair out and chewing through table legs about: writing a great column. Because I want to write something that no one else is writing, good sentences, 800 words, no more. Even though it’s on-line, I still believe in 800 words.
"I would say 75 percent of it is on that and the rest is ABC golf, ESPN golf, I’m going to do Wimbledon TV, working on ‘Homecoming’ all the time."
More on blogs, specifically reports of his behavior at the 2007 Florida-LSU game:
"One time I’m with my wife [then his fiancee] at the Florida-LSU game in the press box and some guy writes on some blog that I was with a stripper. What was that?"
I mentioned that the report was they had been making out.
"No, no, that’s hilarious," he said. "I might have given her a peck on the cheek, and now I’m making out in the press box with a stripper! Everybody has these Google alerts, so any time your name appears you get a Google alert.
"Any schmo can say anything and all of a sudden it’s all over the world. But that wasn’t true."
So, no stripper?
"No. But she was kind of flattered."
Was she wearing clothes?
"That might have been the problem, she had no clothes on at the time."